The system produces an Indian landslide

It was every bit as big as the exit polls said it would be. After yesterday’s counting, the Indian election has been won in a landslide by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. It will have a majority in its own right with about 282 of the 543 seats; together with its allies in the National Democratic Alliance it will command maybe 337 seats (that’s the Times of India‘s figure; India Today says 335, while adding up the official figures I got 334).

It’s the worst ever result for the ruling Congress Party; it will be reduced to about 44 seats (down from 206), plus another 17 or so for its allies. As usual, a large number of regional and sectional parties have won seats (there will be about 35 parties represented in the new parliament), but unlike the last few elections they will not hold the balance of power.

After ten years in office, Congress was looking stale. It was also looking as dynastic as ever, with Rahul Gandhi, great-grandson of  Jawaharlal Nehru, as its candidate for prime minister and his mother Sonia as party president. An electoral repudiation of that way of doing politics is not a bad thing.

But the BJP leader and prime minister-elect, Narendra Modi, is not an attractive figure. His party has always represented the more right-wing, Hindu nationalist side of Indian politics, but in government from 1998 to 2004 it governed in a generally moderate, centrist fashion. Modi, however, promises something more controversial – the word “fascist” tends to crop up repeatedly in stories about him (see here, for example, or here.)

India is not a dictatorship; there are institutional checks and balances that should prevent Modi from giving scope to his worst instincts. But the country could be in for an interesting time.

What all the “landslide” reports don’t tell you, of course, is the remarkable extent to which Modi’s victory is an artefact of the electoral system. Most of the media don’t even mention the share of votes any of the parties got. But the official website has them: the BJP won a working majority with just 31.0% of the vote (the total NDA vote was probably around 40%). Congress on 19.3% had almost two-thirds of its vote but will have less than one-sixth of its seats.

Some will argue, of course, that such distortions are necessary in the interests of stable government. But single-member constituencies do more than just inflate majorities; they are systematically unfair to smaller parties as well. Third place in terms of votes was the Bahujan Samaj Party with 4.1%, but it failed to win a seat; by contrast the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, with just 3.3% (but heavily concentrated in the far south), won 37 seats. A helpful German Wikipedia user has compiled a map of the results.

India remains rightly proud of its title of the world’s largest democracy. But a more democratic electoral system would work even more to its credit, and could even instil a habit of consensus government that in current circumstances might come in handy.

3 thoughts on “The system produces an Indian landslide

  1. This is a difficult problem. Each of the 543 seats must have about one million voters. Maybe some sort of MMP “balance” mechanism on a state-by-state basis might help. But then BSP with 4.1% spread everywhere would probably still be unrepresented in Parliament.

    Looking at the results at

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_general_election,_2014

    It is amazing that BSP can get 23 million votes (about the population of Australia) and not win a single seat.

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  2. Thanks Rocket – yes, that’s a very effective way of looking at it; as if every Australian voted for them but they still couldn’t manage one seat out of 543. I think it’s a case where an MMP system could work well, since the constituencies are so large anyway that making them a bit larger wouldn’t hurt. I’ll try to put some numbers together for a subsequent post.

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